Skip to main content


Words. Words. Words.

By Victor Wishna | HUMANITIES, September/October 2005 | Volume 26, Number 5

As great figures of eighteenth-century English literature go, Samuel Johnson was something of a complainer. He wrote of being forced to write "amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow" as well as "in this gloom of solitude."

Then again, writing a dictionary--even one that is largely considered the first authoritative volume on the English language and which served as the standard for a century and a half--is something of a thankless job. "Every other author may aspire to praise," Johnson wrote in 1755, upon completing A Dictionary of the English Language, a task he took on eight years before. "The lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach."

All of these reflections (and many more) can be found in the new Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson Volume XVIII: Johnson on the English Language. With a release date this fall timed to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the initial printing of Johnson's masterwork, it does not contain any entries from the actual dictionary, but rather Johnson's Plan of a Dictionary--essentially, his book proposal--as well as the Preface and other explanatory writings that accompanied it. The first single volume to contain all these particular texts, the edition has taken nearly fifteen years to reach fruition (or roughly seven years longer than Johnson took to write his dictionary).

Designed for an audience of casual enthusiasts as well as scholars, the Yale edition represents the most complete investigation of these works ever published. "Simply, the goal was to say, 'If people want the best forms of these texts with the most explanation, here they are," says Robert DeMaria Jr., the Henry Noble MacCracken Professor of English and chair of the Department of English at Vassar College, who coedited the edition with fellow Johnsonian, Gwin Kolb, the Chester D. Tripp Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at the University of Chicago.

Working closely with his wife, Ruth, Kolb's main responsibility was to select and vet the text to be included. This required them first to determine which version they felt best represented Johnson's authorship. In this case, they settled on an edition of the Plan from 1747 and the Preface from 1755. From there, they went about reading every version of the two texts that had been produced during Johnson's lifetime, noting each little difference, accepting those they believed had been sanctioned by the author or else were corrections to obvious errors that he no doubt would have approved-an arduous process in which they (almost literally) dotted every i and crossed every t. "If a piece of punctuation was italicized in 1763, but not in 1755, they footnoted it," DeMaria says. "It was a remarkable amount of work."

The result is an authoritative edition in the true sense--a reader should not need to consult any other version of the text to learn its complete story and history. In his introductions, DeMaria focuses mainly on Johnson's sources and influences.

"A demythologization occurs," DeMaria explains. "Johnson wasn't the first person to write a dictionary, he wasn't the first to plan a dictionary. He didn't create this in his mind from scratch. He was drawing on a lot of others, publishers, lexicographers."

Much of the Plan and the Preface deal with Johnson's method of determining what to include--or rather, why he would attempt to include as many words as possible, including those (such as "dog") some might see as too trivial because they were universally understood, or too unnecessary because they so seldom occur (say, "ichneumon"--a large mongoose of Africa and southern Europe).

By his own admission, Johnson set out to "fix" the language, to stabilize it, and in so doing, save it from those who would erode it by using it--a mission in line with "Dr. Johnson's" rigid reputation. "People still like to think of Johnson as a dictator of language," DeMaria says. "And in the dictionary, you can point to evidence of that." For example, in a comparison of the words "later" and "latter," Johnson declares that the, well, latter of the two is "only used by barbarians."

Yet in the end (that is to say, in the Preface), Johnson came to respect the common usage of words, admitting that language can no more be fixed than "the image of a grove in a rainstorm." He resigned himself, in this case not unhappily, to the task of "registering" the language, capturing it as it was. "He was quite struck with the variety, the illusiveness, and the liquidity of language, its fugitive qualities," DeMaria explains.

Likewise, Johnson concluded that some words--primarily the simplest words--truly cannot be defined. In this conviction, DeMaria and Kolb point out in their notes, Johnson was merely drawing on the earlier and broader philosophy of John Locke, who wrote in 1690, "If every particular idea that we take in, should have a distinct name, names must be endless." As a result, Johnson greatly expanded the acceptable "senses" of some words-his entry for set includes 120 separate definitions. His use of quotations to illustrate meanings is yet a further expression of an inability to pin down words. At the time, many literary critics chided him for not finding the true meaning of words, but "for laying this mess in front of the reader," DeMaria explains.

Ultimately, Johnson's dictionary came to be seen as filling a void in Britain's cultural history, giving the language more legitimacy, and erasing the embarrassment that not having a great dictionary--like those that existed for French and Latin--had brought. Robert Browning claimed to read the dictionary to "qualify himself for literature." Johnson himself became known as "Dictionary Johnson," his fame paradoxically giving the work that spawned it even more credibility.

If Johnson's view on language seems anything but controversial today, it is because nearly every innovation, from his broad ranges of definitions for simple words to his extensive use of quotations, was adopted a century ago by the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED's first editor, James A.H. Murray, kept a copy of Johnson's version on his desk, the same copy read and referenced by Robert Birchfield, who edited the second, twenty-volume edition.

"I met him while we were both reading it-I was up to R, and he was on T," DeMaria remembers. "He gave me fatherly advice. He said, 'There's a wall at the letter S--be careful.' Like it was a marathon!"

With colorful definitions ("Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people") and interesting quotes from literature, Johnson's dictionary is one of the few that is actually read for pleasure, not just for reference. Particularly in England, he is quoted nearly as often as Shakespeare. In fact, DeMaria's first book, Johnson's Dictionary and the Language of Learning, examined the dictionary as a piece of literature--though he admits it may have gone "a bit overboard in describing what the 'plot' of the dictionary was" (most readers know how it ends--with the Zs).

In his research, DeMaria discovered that Johnson often read numerous books in a day, shifting from one to another, reading bits here and there. "He had this omnivorous but somewhat browsing approach to reading, 'desultory reading,' as he called it," DeMaria explains. "You get very close to the life of the mind of someone if you try to follow their reading habits."

As a young man, Johnson envisioned a future as a classics scholar, enrolling at Oxford before he fell so deeply in debt he had no choice but to leave and earn a living. He abandoned Latin and moved to London, where he started writing in his own, more pedestrian language.

By the time he was approached by a coalition of seven booksellers to plan and execute a new dictionary, he was known primarily as a hack translator and journalist for gentlemen's magazines and the author of one respected 1738 poem, London. According to the contract signed on June 18, 1746, Johnson was to be paid £1,575 in installments, from which he was to defray all expenses--even the cost of paper--and pay for the help he received from a few amanuenses. In correspondence with his friend, Dr. William Adams, he speculated the project would take him three years to complete. Adams responded by pointing out that it had taken the French Academy's forty members forty years to compile the French dictionary; actually, it had taken fifty-five years. Johnson reportedly replied: "Forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman."

One of the more interesting subplots summarized in the Yale edition is the love-hate relationship between Johnson and his would-be, wouldn't-be patron, Lord Chesterfield, King George II's secretary of state who had played a prominent role in bringing Voltaire to England from France and who was something of an essayist himself. Johnson and his publishers courted the nobleman's help, with Johnson submitting an early version of the Plan for his comments and even addressing a later edition directly "To the Right Honourable Philip Dormer, Earl of Chesterfield; One of His Majesty's Principal Secretaries of State." Yet all records indicate that Chesterfield's financial assistance amounted to one payment of £10. Nonetheless, on the eve of the dictionary's publication, the Earl wrote a positive review, implying--perhaps unintentionally--that he had played a much larger role in its creation.

On February 7, 1755, Johnson responded with what has since become one of the more famous "poison-pen" letters in the English language. "Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for Life in the water," Johnson wrote, "and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help?" The version of the Plan distributed as an advertisement for the dictionary contained no reference to Chesterfield, and the Preface concludes with the assertion that "the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great." Some of Johnson's bitterness toward any would-be patron even seeped its way into the very definition he gave the word: "One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with indolence, and is paid with flattery."

The whole ordeal may have strengthened Johnson's resolve--or at the very least, his reputation--as the world's first independent, professional writer. The literary critic Alvin Kernan has written of Johnson's letter to Chesterfield as literature's "declaration of independence," an avowal to escape the patronage system once and for all. And as DeMaria points out, Johnson is the unconfirmed author of the adage, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

Yet when all was finished, Dr. Johnson, the great complainer, mercenary writer, and dictator of language, seemed quite at peace with his creation and with his labors.

"I shall not think my employment useless or ignoble, if by my assistance foreign nations, and distant ages, gain access to the propagators of knowledge, and understand the teachers of truth; if my labours afford light to the repositories of science, and add celebrity to Bacon, to Hooker, to Milton, and to Boyle," Johnson wrote in the conclusion of his Preface. "When I am animated by this wish, I look with pleasure on my book, however defective, and deliver it to the world with the spirit of a man that has endeavoured well."

About the Author

Victor Wishna is a writer in New York City.

Funding Information

The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson has received $152,726 from NEH since 1978.